Trump says he loves Latinos. Do they love him back?
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice says it will recommend Trump veto FISA bill Fauci: Nominating conventions may be able to go on as planned Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally MORE labeled himself "number one with Hispanics" after his Nevada Republican caucus win and vowed to win over the fast-growing voting bloc. 

“They’re incredible people. They’re incredible workers. I love them. I love them,” he said at Thursday's GOP debate.

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Trump claimed 44 percent of the Latino vote at the Nevada caucus — trouncing two Cuban Americans, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWSJ editorial board condemns Trump for 'trash' Scarborough tweets: 'Ugly even for him' Progressives raise alarm over letting lobbying groups access PPP funds Green group proposes nearly T infrastructure and clean energy stimulus plan MORE and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former NIC Director Greg Treverton rips US response; WHO warns of 'immediate second peak' if countries reopen too quickly This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting Overwhelming majority of publicly traded firms have not returned small-business loans: review MORE — but most analysts cast doubt on the validity of the entrance polls that spawned that number.

Super Tuesday will test the legitimacy of those polls, and Trump's Latino optimism, with two large, Latino-heavy states holding Republican primaries: Texas and Virginia.

On March 1, the biggest prize is Texas, with 155 delegates in play on the Republican side. Texas also has the largest share of Latino voters of any state in Tuesday’s contest.

San Antonio-based political analyst Víctor Landa calculates Latino support of Trump at 7 or 8 percent in the state. “And I’m hearing from some Republicans that they may stay home if Trump is the nominee," he said.

An NBC/WSJ/Marist poll of likely GOP primary voters in Texas shows Cruz at 36 percent, solidly ahead of Trump at 26 percent and Rubio at 13 percent.

“Trump represents everything the Republican Party does not want to be. The Republican brand is toxic right now with the Hispanic community and we need to repair it. If Trump is the nominee, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to go into the Hispanic community and win the hearts and minds of Latino voters,” said Artemio Muñiz, chair of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans.

Cruz should have an advantage with Latino voters in his home state primary.

But Texas Latinos are overwhelmingly Democratic and tend to vote against the state's traditional Republican majority in general elections. When he won his Senate race in 2012, Cruz only picked up 35 percent of the Latino vote.

“Latino voters haven’t had a cozy relationship with the Republican Party, but this is a new level,” added University of Texas professor Victoria DeFrancesco Soto. “Trump is smart and he knew what population he was targeting with those comments. He was scapegoating immigrants. Right now it’s Mexicans, and it used to be Italians, Jewish immigrants, the Chinese. What Trump is doing is old wine in new bottles,”  

Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official and president of the advocacy group Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, went even further: “If it’s between Donald Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNew FBI document confirms the Trump campaign was investigated without justification California 25 and COVID-19 The Memo: Trump tweets cross into new territory MORE or Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives raise alarm over letting lobbying groups access PPP funds Loeffler runs ad tying Doug Collins to Pelosi, Sanders, Biden Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel MORE, it’s like choosing between being shot or being hacked. We might vote, but leave that part of the ballot blank. I may choose to vote for Mickey Mouse instead.”  

In Virginia, some Latino Republicans are thinking along the same lines.

“Generally I would support whomever the Republican nominee is, but the only way for me to support Trump would be for him to change his tone and his rhetoric. If he keeps up with this tone, I feel a lot of Republicans are staying home. For me, that is an option,” said marketing professional and former Virginia Assembly candidate Danny Vargas.

“If Trump is the nominee, I really don’t know what I will do. It’s so difficult for me to see that he is so nasty, and so bombastic,” said Virginia business executive and former Bush administration official Theresa Avillar Speake. “Is that what I want in my president? I don’t think so.”

Trump’s brashness is precisely why Alex Veras likes him.

Veras, a Republican Party activist in Massachusetts, another Super Tuesday state, said, “I like that brashness. I like the fact the he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind. I like that he’s un-PC and says what people are thinking.

“I think there was a better way to say why we need to control the border, and so I may actually flip a coin on Tuesday to see whether I vote for Trump or for Rubio.”  

Trump leads the polls in the Bay State with 40 percent, with Rubio far behind at 19 percent, and Cruz at 16 percent.

Many Latino Trump supporters live in Florida, which holds its critical winner-take-all primary on March 15, and where Trump holds a sizeable lead over native son Rubio.

“I already voted, and I voted early for Donald Trump, and I feel he’s unstoppable,” said Florida retiree Carmen Teresa Roiz. “I have given this a lot of thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that he is our best bet. We need a firmer hand on issues like the economy and national security, and he has a lot of enthusiasm and energy, plus he is financing his own campaign. There are no strings attached and he doesn’t owe anything to any special interests.”

When he announced his candidacy, Trump branded Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug-dealers, but Roiz says that's a tempest in a teapot. “I don’t think that's as harsh as it’s been portrayed. I think he is the best candidate,” she said.

Colorado voters go to the polls on Super Tuesday and Latino voters may well tip the balance. Businessman Luis Tavel said Trump is just channeling the frustrations of many.

“I’m a big believer in following the law. My family came here legally [from Bolivia] and we waited in line and followed the process to get our citizenship. Trump has done a great job of articulating the feelings I have. He hasn’t said he’s against immigrants, just against those doing it illegally,” said Tavel.

Tavel agreed with Roiz that Trump’s comments about Mexicans were blown out of proportion. "He was speaking for the millions of people who’ve basically just had it. Obamacare is a joke, our national debt is out of control, and we open ourselves up to terrorism with an open border.”

Super Tuesday will provide a reliable sample size to gauge Trump's actual support among Republican Latinos. Trump doesn't need to win big among Latinos to secure the nomination, but the general election is a different story.

According to a Washington Post-Univision News poll of Latinos nationwide, 8 out of 10 view him unfavorably.

Trump will face an uphill battle to garner substantial support among Mexican-Americans, who account for about 64 percent of all Latinos in the United States. Conventional wisdom says 40 percent of the Latino vote is necessary to win a general election.

Patricia Guadalupe writes for Latino magazine.